BEST PHOTOGRAPHY BOOKDS OF 2012
Sean O'Hagan for The Guardian, December 2012
Sean O'Hagan applauds blockbuster retrospectives and innovative ideas.
The trend for big and expensive limited-edition retrospectives continued apace with Bruce Davidson's Black & White and William Eggleston's Los Alamos Revisited (both Steidl, £220 each). Phaidon also weighed in this year with the even more expensive Joel Meyerowitz boxed set, Taking My Time, which costs £500 but at least comes with a signed print of one of his street photographs from the 1960s. A good investment if you can afford it, but you may need to move fast as only 1,500 have been printed. At the other end of the scale, the boom in relatively cheap selfpublished photography books also continued. The ever-inventive Self Publish, Be Happy launched its own book club, whereby, for a subscription of £100, you receive three limited-edition books over the following 12 months, each adorned with an original Polaroid print. The first in the series, AB&OC by Adam Broomberg and Oliver Chanarin (which could also be bought individually for £40), is already a collector's item. The second, which features highlights from art dealer Brad Feuerhelm's collection of strange and disturbing found photographs, is out now. On a more traditional note, the Magnum photo agency trawled its extensive archive for two retrospectives: Magnum Contact Sheets (Thames & Hudson £95) and Magnum Revolution (Prestel £35). The former, brilliantly edited by Kristen Lubben, is the more illuminating, allowing us a glimpse of the creative process of some of the agency's greatest photographers, from Cartier-Bresson to Elliott Erwitt. Another Magnum photographer, the prodigious Martin Parr, turned his acid eye on America for the first time with Up and Down Peachtree (Contrasto £25), a series of colour snapshots from Atlanta, Georgia of the garish and the intimate. French photographer Charles Fréger journeyed far and wide to catalogue the stranger reaches of Europe's surviving pagan folk traditions for the wonderful Wilder Mann: The Image of the Savage (Dewi Lewis £25). Demons, devils, bears, stags and straw men abound even in the digital age. For visual anthropology of a more modern sort, check out Lucas Foglia's arresting and evocative debut, A Natural Order (Nazraeli £50). Foglia travelled throughout the rural American south-east for five years to uncover a network of disparate communities – from Mennonites to extreme environmentalists – who have fled the cities to live "off the grid" in the mountains and backwoods. A work that blends the observational and the staged, it says much about a strain of American libertarianism that is undergoing a revival in these nervous times. Several years of painstaking preparation also went into Michael Marten's Sea Change: A Tidal Journey Around Britain (Kehrer Verlag £30), a visual record of key landscapes on Britain's shoreline at ebb tide and flood tide. There are diptychs of tidal estuaries, beaches, rocks and buildings that show the same subject surrounded by land, and hours later, by water. The results are surprising, and, as sea levels rise inexorably, sometimes ominous. The austere, snow-covered landscapes of Finland and Norway loom large in Pentti Sammallahti's beautiful retrospective book, Here Far Away (Dewi Lewis £45). You can almost feel the cold and hear the silence in these grey-white landscapes of icy forests and towns. He is a great photographer of dogs and crows, too, and they feature in his pictures almost as much as the lone human figures who appear like shadows out of the snow. The great Swedish photographer Anders Petersen continued his City Diary series with Soho (Mack £40). Petersen's forlorn eye renders contemporary, cleaned-up Soho as a remnant of what it used to be: sleazy, edgy and haunted by outsiders of every hue. Finally, an altogether more brash and, some might say, vulgar urban landscape is brought to life in Maciej Dakowicz's Cardiff After Dark (Thames and Hudson £24.95), for which I wrote the introduction. Dakowicz took pictures in and around Cardiff city centre every Saturday night for five years. The result is by turns alarming, shocking, utterly hilarious and guaranteed to vindicate those who think that Britain has become a nation of dissolute drunks.
Can the camera be racist? The question is explored in an exhibition that reflects on how Polaroid built an efficient tool for South Africa's apartheid regime to photograph and police black people.
The London-based artists Adam Broomberg and Oliver Chanarin spent a month in South Africa taking pictures on decades-old film that had been engineered with only white faces in mind. They used Polaroid's vintage ID-2 camera, which had a "boost" button to increase the flash – enabling it to be used to photograph black people for the notorious passbooks, or "dompas", that allowed the state to control their movements.
The result was raw snaps of some of the country's most beautiful flora and fauna from regions such as the Garden Route and the Karoo, an attempt by the artists to subvert what they say was the camera's original, sinister intent.
Broomberg and Chanarin say their work, on show at Johannesburg's Goodman Gallery, examines "the radical notion that prejudice might be inherent in the medium of photography itself". They argue that early colour film was predicated on white skin: in 1977, when Jean-Luc Godard was invited on an assignment to Mozambique, he refused to use Kodak film on the grounds that the stock was inherently "racist".
The light range was so narrow, Broomberg said, that "if you exposed film for a white kid, the black kid sitting next to him would be rendered invisible except for the whites of his eyes and teeth". It was only when Kodak's two biggest clients – the confectionary and furniture industries – complained that dark chocolate and dark furniture were losing out that it came up with a solution.
The artists feel certain that the ID-2 camera and its boost button were Polaroid's answer to South Africa's very specific need. "Black skin absorbs 42% more light. The button boosts the flash exactly 42%," Broomberg explained. "It makes me believe it was designed for this purpose."
In 1970 Caroline Hunter, a young chemist working for Polaroid in America, stumbled upon evidence that the company was effectively supporting apartheid. She and her partner Ken Williams formed the Polaroid Workers Revolutionary Movement and campaigned for a boycott. By 1977 Polaroid had withdrawn from South Africa, spurring an international divestment movement that was crucial to bringing down apartheid.
The title of the exhibition, To Photograph the Details of a Dark Horse in Low Light, refers to the coded phrase used by Kodak to describe a new film stock created in the early 1980s to address the inability of earlier films to accurately render dark skin.
The show also features norm reference cards that always used white women as a standard for measuring and calibrating skin tones when printing photographs. The series of "Kodak Shirleys" were named after the first model featured. Today such cards show multiple races.
Broomberg and Chanarin made two recent trips to Gabon to photograph a series of rare Bwiti initiation rituals using Kodak film stock, scavenged from eBay, that had expired in 1978. Working with outdated chemical processes, they salvaged just a single frame. Broomberg said: "Anything that comes out of that camera is a political document. If I take a shot of the carpet, that's a political document."